Early Signs of Autism May Be Present at Birth

Newborn baby girl with identity tag on feet, close up
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Very early signs of autism could be present at birth. Dr. Harvey J. Kliman of the Yale School of Medicine is one of a team of researchers who have made a potentially groundbreaking discovery. In a preliminary study, he and his colleagues found that the placentas of babies who, years later, are diagnosed with autism, are physically different from those of typical babies. While the study included placentas from only from 13 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD), they found that the placentas from ASD children were three times more likely to have the abnormalities, called "inclusions."

Looking at the Placenta

Kliman, a placental specialist, explains that "…the placenta is part of the fetus…. They are the same, made of the same material…. When you look at placenta, it's like a window in on the baby."

When looking at placentas, says Kliman, "We look for symmetry. It's difficult to create symmetry. We can tell off the bat if something is put together perfectly if it's symmetrical. The placenta is like a tree; when genes are abnormal, you get abnormal growth patterns of the placenta. When a placenta has not grown normally, what's abnormal is the way that the placenta folds, the layers of cells. What we think is happening is, the brain is a complex folded tissue. Whatever is abnormal in the placenta is likely what's abnormal in the brain. Something is wrong with the way the brain is folded -- and we may see the same thing in both the placenta and the brain."

The Yale study is just a start, and additional studies will be required to confirm its findings.

Nevertheless, there are two potentially significant outcomes. Both will be of great interest to parents as well to medical and therapeutic practitioners.

Future Possibilities

First, the finding could answer for once and for all the question of when autism begins. Kliman, for his part, has no doubts: "It's genetic; happens when sperm hits the egg, in the first trimester.

Then doesn't mean that there are no continued problems -- autistic brains become extra large at 4 years of age, [and there are other issues.]. But we do know that there's a clinical history to these diseases, it's clinically genetic."

Second, the finding could pave the way to very early diagnosis of autism, with the outcome that children could receive valuable early intervention. Here's how Kliman terms the "message to parents": "If your child is born and his placenta has this abnormality, the check engine light is on. I would suggest as early as you can see an autism expert, see if you can see anything. If there are any hints, do early intervention; anything to help the brains form as well as they can. The earlier we do that the better."


"Placental Trophoblast Inclusions in Autism Spectrum Disorder" George M. Anderson, Andrea Jacobs-Stannard, Katarzyna Chawarska, Fred R. Volkmar, and Harvey J. Kliman Biological Psychiatry July, 2006.

"Key To Early Diagnosis Of Autism May Be In The Placenta" Yale University Press Release June 26, 2008.

Telephone interview with Dr. Harvey Kliman, June 24 2006.